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Spirit Lake dispute continues: Tribal Council members seek dismissal of former chairman's federal lawsuit

GRAND FORKS -- Members of the Spirit Lake Tribal Council have asked a federal court to throw out a lawsuit brought last month by Roger Yankton Sr., who seeks to regain his position as chairman of the tribe.

In a motion to dismiss filed this week in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks, they argue that tribal sovereignty "precludes the exercise of ... jurisdiction (by the court) over the named defendants."

They also note that Yankton "has failed to exhaust tribal remedies" or "state a cause of action for which relief can be granted."

In his lawsuit, filed Aug. 12, Yankton argues that a restraining order issued against him by a Spirit Lake tribal judge was obtained improperly, prevents him from acting as chairman and amounts to an "illegal detention" that violates his civil rights.

He says the restraining order, which bars him from entering the tribal headquarters or contacting members of the council, makes him "a virtual prisoner on the reservation."

Yankton named as defendants five other members of the Tribal Council, including Leander "Russ" McDonald, who twice this summer was declared chairman in Yankton's stead.

Yankton and the council also have squared off in tribal court, which issued an order July 16 reinstating the former chairman. He had been removed from office July 1 at a general meeting called by the vice chairman after more than 500 tribe members signed a recall petition.

On July 17, McDonald and other Yankton opponents renewed the tribe's membership in the Northern Plains Intertribal Appeals Court and asked that the tribal court's order reinstating Yankton be stayed. The appeals court issued the stay order.

Later in July and again Aug. 6, a new Tribal Court judge issued the restraining order against Yankton.

Yankton has argued that the Tribal Council acted in 2012 to leave the appeals court and set up its own appeals process. No appellate judges have been hired, but he said McDonald had no authority to rejoin the intertribal court, which is based in Aberdeen, S.D.

The appeals court had scheduled oral arguments Aug. 30 at the University of North Dakota Law School in Grand Forks on who should be recognized as chairman of the Spirit Lake tribe, but that plan was scrapped, apparently over the availability of parking for the court and members of the tribe who might wish to observe the proceedings. The court has not announced another time and location.